Plants could help to capture carbon

Viet Dinh, Stephen Breyer, Sandra Day O’Conner and Moderator Sandy Levinson gather at the Aspen Ideas Festival

ASPEN — Carbon-absorbing natural landscapes hold one answer to the question of how to slow down climate change, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes told an audience Wednesday.

“I think we have some exciting opportunities to take advantage of basically drinking in carbon,” Hayes said in an appearance at this week’s Aspen Ideas Festival at the Aspen Institute.

Hayes and co-speaker Thomas Lovejoy, founder of the PBS series “Nature” and former chief biodiversity advisor to the World Bank, said biological sequestration can capture some of the carbon emissions that are contributing to global warming.

Lovejoy estimated that approaches such as restoring grazing lands and changing forest management and agricultural practices could pull 150 billion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere, or about 40 parts per million. He said the carbon content is now about 40 parts per million above the desirable level and continuing to rise.

“It doesn’t diminish the urgency of the energy agenda, but by thinking on a planetary scale and regreening the emerald planet, we can use the living planet to make the planet more inhabitable,” Lovejoy said.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar appointed Hayes to head up an energy and climate-change task force. On the energy front, the Interior Department is increasing its focus on development of renewable energies such as wind and solar on public land and offshore, Hayes said.

The Interior Department manages more than 500 million acres, or 20 percent of America’s entire land mass, Hayes said. Add in Forest Service land, and that number rises to 29 percent.
Wetlands, forests, grasslands and even desert scrublands soak up carbon, and all told, natural landscapes in the United States already sequester 30 percent of the country’s fossil fuel emissions, Hayes said.

“What’s exciting is the possibility of increasing that storage of carbon in our natural landscapes through some of the restoration efforts that Tom was talking about,” he said.

Hayes said the Interior Department already is involved in some such efforts, including one in which companies are paying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to plant bottomland hardwoods in the Mississippi Valley. Southeastern shrub bogs are being revitalized on the Eastern seaboard, and the government is looking to plant more native seeds in the Great Basin Desert.

Part of the goal in the Great Basin is to supplant invasive cheatgrass that can increase carbon emissions by helping fuel wildfires.

Also required is active forest management that involves thinning, reducing fire danger and promoting more vigorous growth and increased carbon absorption, Hayes said.

Lovejoy said 20 percent of the world’s annual carbon emissions comes from deforestation, and the world should be able to reduce that contribution to zero.


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